As Reeves shutters schools, some teachers worry about sustaining distance learning

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Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today, Report For America

Gov. Tate Reeves answers questions during a press conference concerning the coronavirus pandemic.

Mississippi students will not return to the classroom this semester.

On Tuesday, Gov. Tate Reeves announced that school buildings would remain closed for the rest of the year to prevent the spread of coronavirus. Reeves added that he had hoped to reopen schools but that data did not justify doing so.

Reeves’ decision follows those in other states to close schools for the rest of the semester or, in some cases, until further notice. Some of Mississippi’s contiguous states have already made the decision to keep school doors closed for the remainder of the year. Alabama and Arkansas announced in March that schools would close for the rest of the semester while Louisiana and Tennessee have both shuttered schools until late April.

Reeves said districts may turn to summer school or early fall classes if necessary, but doing so would not be required.

“We’re going to work with our local superintendents,” Reeves said. “It’s going to depend on how much distance learning actually occurred. In some districts… they may feel very comfortable with where the vast majority of their students are. We look at it not as a mandate but as an option. It’s something we ought to be thinking about.”

The closures come as the state is under a shelter in place order, and the number of confirmed cases continues to climb. To date, Mississippi has 3,087 confirmed cases and 111 deaths.

To most, the closures do not come as a surprise. Schools were already closed until at least April 17, and the state board of education took action in March to cancel end-of-year state testing. Students will still graduate and be promoted to the next grade, as State Superintendent Carey Wright recently referred to the 2019-20 school year as a “hold harmless year” due to the disruptions caused by the coronavirus and school closures.

Some educators question why the decision was not made sooner. Reeves announced on April 8 that he would make a decision about what to do with schools by April 14.

“Educators are concerned about that,” said Mississippi Association of Educators president Erica Jones, ahead of the governor’s announcement. “Why are we prolonging this? Why hasn’t there been leadership on when schools are returning? Arkansas made their decision, Georgia made their decision.”

“Here in our state we have teachers that are literally having panic attacks because we have a governor that has not made a decision on schools. Some groups of educators are preparing lessons to be taught in a classroom for a return date on April 20. And then others are thinking, ‘Should I be planning out some type of distance learning?’”

While there will be no state testing, seniors still need to meet their school district’s requirements and earn 24 Carnegie units, which are used to equate hours of class or contact time with an instructor over the course of a high school year. Districts will determine how to award credits for courses in the current school year, and the state board gave local school boards the authority to change their graduation policies as long as they still comply with state standards.

How schools provide instruction during the closures is up to each school district. Last month, the Mississippi Department of Education released guidance with resources to use during the pandemic and warned against immediately pivoting to online learning because of the challenges that come with access and equity.

In the Starkville-Oktibbeha School District, Starkville High School assistant principal Darein Spann said the superintendent asked teachers to hold office hours for two hours a day, three days a week for students to call or email with questions.

“The normalcy is not there,” Spann said. “So we’ve really just kind of been a facilitator of information and support for teachers to ensure that students are being serviced and getting correct information to support them.”

That district has some students who take dual credit courses at East Mississippi Community College and Mississippi State University, so students in those courses are continuing to use the online platform that was already in place. In March, the state’s public universities and colleges switched to remote instruction to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Students in Advanced Placement courses are working with their teachers online via Microsoft Teams, Spann said.

Students who aren’t able to connect and get online, we reach out to parents and make a way for students to still receive any type of assignments or packets,” Spann said.

When Reeves initially announced in March that schools would temporarily close, districts turned to creative solutions to continue teaching. Some distribute paper packets with learning materials for each student to work on at home, while others are trying out ways to teach online.

For Kimberly Suber, it’s been a challenge to keep her students engaged from afar. The Magee High School Spanish teacher uses Google Classroom or Google Hangouts meeting option to continue teaching lessons, but not all students in the town have online access, and sometimes her own internet is spotty.

 “Yesterday, my internet went down. I planned to meet with my kids then,” Suber said. “Just trying to actually align things and get in touch properly, it’s been difficult for all of us. The waters are a bit muddy right now.”

Suber said she’s doing her best to keep a schedule so her students have a daily routine. She recently assigned a project about flags of Spanish speaking countries, which students can turn in to her virtually or with take-home packets they received. But she’s concerned without the daily practice her students were receiving in-person before schools closed that they may lose progress.

“I’m typically used to being up, moving around, in the classroom working with students. Now, here I’m at home and I try to work with them virtually,” Suber said. “I’m worried about my Spanish students just completely forgetting everything that they’ve known.”

Suber’s colleague Jillian Etheridge has run into similar roadblocks in instruction. Etheridge teaches English and literacy classes at the high school, and recently learned that the curriculum she previously used for in-class instruction did not translate well to distance learning. When she assigned her students a unit about science literacy, students misunderstood the assignment.

“It’s just not practical. A lot of our students thought that I had mistakenly given them science work,” Etheridge said. “I gave them the things I thought they would be able to do without a computer if they didn’t have it, (but) some of the classes just aren’t set up to do in a crisis like this.

“(Students) just don’t have access to the internet all the time,” Etheridge said. “It’s not really equitable to try to teach online.”